A Conversation with Raina Peterson

Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez

Raina Peterson is a classical Indian dance and queer performance artist. One of Australia’s very few professional practitioners of mohiniyattam, they are co-director of Karma Dance Inc., part of the teaching staff at Studio J Dance, a board member of Asian-Australian literary magazine Peril and one-third of anti-racist cabaret act the Ladies of Colour Agency. One of their latest works is the sell-out, critically acclaimed experimental classical Indian dance production In Plain Sanskrit, which premiered at the Footscray Community Arts Centre in 2015 and toured to Auckland in 2016.

We speak to Raina about community, embodiment and narrative in dance.

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 How did you get into dance?

I started performing when I was five. My parents got me and my sibling into dance as a way to stay connected to our Indian heritage, so identity is a big part of why I do it. I sometimes wonder how my identity—including my gender—would be different if I wasn’t a dancer; I’ve been dancing my whole life and can’t really imagine life without it. It’s something I deeply enjoy doing and feel like I have such an incredible life to be able to do the thing I love most as a profession.

My parents are founding members of the Gippsland Indian Association in country Victoria, which decided to celebrate Diwali every year by putting on a concert. I did my first performance back then, and it became an annual thing—we kids would learn folk dances, Bollywood-style dances and some classical dances. At some point, we ran out of people willing to undertake the task of teaching us kids to dance, so my parents sought out Tara Rajkumar, who was doing a concert in Melbourne.

By the age of twelve, I’d begun training in mohiniyattam under her. The dance style is pretty obscure—India has several different forms of classical dance, and mohiniyattam, which comes from Kerala, is one of the ‘uncool’ ones. So it’s quite by chance that I’m doing this obscure form of dance.

What was it like growing up in Gippsland?

I grew up in Warragul, specifically, and I think my mum might have been the first Fiji Indian to migrate to Gippsland! (Half the population of Fiji is Indian—after the British abolished slavery, they got Indians to work on sugarcane plantations in Fiji and places like the Caribbean under appalling conditions as indentured labourers.) She married my dad, a white Australian from Morwell, in Fiji, then they decided to move to Gippsland because Dad’s from there. As the first (or one of the first) Fiji Indian to migrate to Gippsland, my mum experienced a lot of intense racism. Despite that, soon after, all these Fiji Indians who were planning on migrating to Australia were like, ‘Where shall we go? Mala’s in Gippsland; let’s move there!’ And, as more of us settled there, my parents helped set up the Gippsland Indian Association.

On the one hand, my childhood was quite brutal because of that racism, but it was also kind of magical because everything was quite beautiful there—it’s always green and full of trees, and I had friends who had horses, so I have incredible memories of horseback riding through the bush. If I didn’t have that beautiful relationship with greenery and animals, I would have grown up very differently.

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Would you say that being biracial has impacted on your life?

People get really confused if you’re not one thing or the other. I’m also bisexual, and biphobia is so rampant, even in the queer community. And I’m nonbinary, which is also baffling for people. If you’re ‘in-between’, people just don’t know how to deal with it—and the same goes with being mixed-race.

I used to have a lot of anger around being mixed-race and other people’s perceptions of me, but now I figure I know who I am even if nobody else does. And, as a mixed-race person with one white parent, I’ve got it pretty good, considering. I love my dad—there are things he’s just never going to understand, but he tries really hard and he did a good job raising a brown family. I’m grateful that I’ve had that. I’ve had friends who are people of colour (POC) with one parent who is white, and that parent is racist, or their extended family is racist. I can’t imagine how distressing and traumatising it must be to have people like that as your family. 

You’ve said that your work is informed not just by classical Indian dance traditions, but also by queer performance traditions. Do you think dance is (or can be) a form of activism?

 My professional career started with activism. Two of my friends—Lia Incognita and Loretta Mui—and I were tired of the racism in the left-wing activist scene at uni, so we decided to get together and do something about it. We weren’t sure whether to host a forum or workshop or publish something, but then one of us suggested doing a cabaret show instead. So we formed the Ladies of Colour Agency (LOCA) and did an anti-racist cabaret performance that had spoken word, theatre, burlesque and dance; the shows were sold out in Melbourne and were well received.

While my earlier work was a little didactic in its message, my work now is probably less explicit in its activism; it’s more expressive of who I am and what ideas/images resonate with me, rather than a specific message. A lot of my recent work engages with themes like diaspora, gender, sexuality and the notion of tradition. I perform a bit around the queer scene, and my work there is very Indian and very queer. There’s this perception out there that being a POC and being queer are two contradictory states. A lot of my work around the queer scene—by being very queer in a very Indian kind of way—is my way of challenging this idea and presenting queer and trans person of colour (QTPOC) identity as something complete, eternal, with a past, present and future.

I also have work that is not even subtle about its politics. I have a ‘burlesque’ act that is basically me prancing around dressed in the Australian flag, cutting it off my body using a giant pair of scissors, and inviting the audience to do the same. It’s an expression of exuberant defiance against the Australian state. It’s an act I first did with LOCA years ago, when it won notoriety after it almost started a race riot at the Adelaide Fringe. All these conservative white people stormed out, threatened us and the venue, one woman threatened to decapitate me with my scissors, Channel Nine was following us around, and the venue threw us out. Maybe they were expecting some nice multicultural cancan or something. They just seemed to hate the fact that it had anti-racist content, feminist content, queer content. They hated that it was political. They hated that it had anger in it—that we weren’t just friendly, pretty brown girls or whatever.

I performed the same act at the first Cocoa Butter Club, a regular POC performance event, at the Melba Spiegeltent, and the whole place blew up; the audience really responded to it. 

What is LOCA up to these days?

Since Adelaide, we haven’t actually done a full show, which is sad. Unfortunately, Loretta is in Canada and Lia is in Shanghai, so I’m the only one left in Australia. But we’ve done small gigs or been in other people’s shows—the three of us were the original cast of Hot Brown Honey, for example, which was pretty cool.

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Could you tell us about In Plain Sanskrit?

Around five years ago, I met my dance partner, Govind Pillai; he was doing a show with his sister in Melbourne and I’d never heard of him before. I went on YouTube and watched an interview with both of them on New Zealand TV, and I realised he was gay! So I decided I needed to meet this guy. I went to the show and it was amazing, then I hung around afterwards and introduced myself to him.

After that, we performed at the Encounters Festival in Brisbane, the Woodford Folk Festival, and the Melaka Art and Performance Festival in Malaysia. That last one was pretty important for us because, while there’s a strong classical Indian dance scene in Melbourne, it was really great to perform outside the city/country. And this festival is quite ‘anything goes’, so we got to experiment with all this weird stuff that we probably would’ve been too frightened to try here. From some of the stuff we did at this festival, we built an entire full-length show, which became In Plain Sanskrit. Two years ago, we debuted it at the Footscray Community Arts Centre—it was sold out and had five-star rave reviews. It was the best thing ever. We were really pleased with it, and surprised by its success, as we were concerned that it’d be a bit too niche to attract much of a crowd, being contemporary Indian dance (which doesn’t get much/any love within the mainstream arts industry). We also toured it to Auckland last year.

The thought process behind In Plain Sanskrit was to take very traditional forms and then dissect them: take away all the orchestra, costuming, structure and repertoire, and keep on taking away and see what’s left. In the end, it became a contemporary Indian dance show that was a meditation on diaspora and identity.

How do you approach choreography?

Govind and I are quite aligned in terms of our values and ideas and how we work creatively. Our work is built on imagery and feelings and ideas, and our process is less cerebral than it is intuitive. Govind’s trained in bharatanatyam, one of the more popular forms of Indian dance; I don’t know bharatanatyam and he doesn’t know mohiniyattam, so we both stick to our respective dance styles. But we still find a way to work together—that negotiation is always happening. And, while our choreography is based on our classical training and technique, we also break away from that—in my case, I also do Bollywood and folk, and even martial arts. We both do yoga as well. I guess our work is very much based on movement traditions that originated in India; we’re not trained in Western contemporary or ballet or anything. Our dancing, as contemporary and as diverse as it is, is still Indian.

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And you do martial arts!

Yes, I do kalaripayattu, which is from Kerala as well; I learn from Ramona Lalita Yagnik from the Kalari Healing centre. As a dancer, I find that martial arts offer a very different embodied experience of movement, with a very different function to dance. As opposed to being aesthetic, it’s a functional form of movement. Also, mohiniyattam is very fluid and graceful, but movement in kalaripayattu is very forceful. For me, it’s really great having to imbibe this different quality into my body.

I’m also quite interested in the psychological effect of learning this martial art. I’m a small, skinny Asian, and having this size and this body affects how I navigate the world. Plus, being a survivor of violence, I’ve lived my life being hyper-aware of my physical vulnerability and the possibility of attack; it’s always in the back of my mind. Even after learning for only a short period of time, my psychological awareness of my body, as well as my embodiment, has changed dramatically from being someone who was hyper-aware of physical vulnerability to, now, having the skills and the strength to defend myself. Changing that dynamic has been really amazing for my mindset; it’s given me this agency in terms of being in public. It’s really empowering.

What are your thoughts on dance as a form of expression?

The contemporary dance scene in Australia apparently finds narrative really boring, so a lot of Western contemporary dance is really abstract. In contrast, coming from a classical Indian dance tradition, narrative is pretty important. We use dance as a form of storytelling—to tell stories about mythology, to communicate important messages about colonisation, to warn of impending problems. Narrative is always going to be part of my work. We have abstract dances as well, but I will never subscribe to the Western notion that narrative is boring or unimportant or clichéd. I think stories are really important, and dance is a fantastic medium for telling stories as much as anything else.

In classical Indian dance, we actually have a literal language—a gestural language. We have all these different hand gestures and they’re like the ‘letters’ of the alphabet; using them, we can create ‘words’ and form sentences. It’s not a complex language; it’s very heavy on nouns, verbs and adjectives. But, during the narrative component of our dances, there are parts where we might mime certain actions or events, and we can have conversations with the audience using our hands. People can be quite fluent in this language.

It’s interesting, for me, because I spoke Fiji Hindi when I was a kid, but stopped because of the intense racism I experienced at school; these days, I can understand spoken Fiji Hindi but I can’t properly speak it. But this gestural language is like an Indian language that I’m fluent in, which is pretty cool because I’m now mostly monolingual.

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In terms of dance, what are your plans moving forward? You and I are both part of the Midsumma Futures mentorship and development program for queer artists, for instance.

I’m putting on a show for Midsumma called Bent Bollywood, which is basically a sexy queer Indian dance show. I’m super excited about it; it’s everything that’s hot about classical Indian dance, coupled with Bollywood and queer performance art. It’ll be at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute in January. I’m also super excited about being part of the Midsumma Futures program because I’m still figuring out how to successfully navigate the arts industry; I’m hoping for some practical guidance to that effect.

And you’re performing at Transtravaganza at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival! What can we expect on the day? 

I’m doing a contemporary Indian dance work about being trans, which draws on Hindu mythology. I freaking love Myriad Collective—if anyone reading this is a trans artist, they should get in touch with them!

Do you have any advice for emerging dancers?

Find your allies—collaborators, mentors, and organisations and individuals who can give you advice or share resources, yes, but it’s also wonderful to have friendships with other artists who you can share your journey with. I’m very grateful for my close friendship with writer Lian Low. It’s been so incredible to have a travel companion as we’re meandering along our respective career paths, giving each other support, encouragement, advice and a hefty kick up the arse as needed.

Who are you inspired by?

Akram Khan, of course; he’s the most famous contemporary Indian dancer in the West. He’s trained in the classical Indian dance style of kathak and I love seeing that in his work.

And Jacob Boehme, who is one of the reasons I decided to become a professional dancer. I first met him when he collaborated with my guru, Tara Rajkumar, and four of her students on a project for Ausdance a hundred years ago; we connected mostly, I think, because we clocked each other as queer, but it was really exciting for me to meet another professional dancer with a background in traditional dance. He’s been very encouraging of me ever since and I adore his work.

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What are you currently listening to? 

Joan Armatrading’s discography, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Duke Ellington and a whole bunch of Bollywood songs.

What are you currently reading? 

All About Love by bell hooks and The New Diary by Tristine Rainer.

How do you practise self-care? 

I love to journal. I’ve had an on-and-off journalling habit since I was a kid. It really helps me to decompress and process what’s going on in my head, as well as come up with new ideas.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

Community and exciting arts practices. It will always mean the Ladies of Colour Agency (my two collaborators are also Asian-Australian) and Peril Magazine (for whom I’m a board member).

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 Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez

Photography by Leah Jing McIntosh

Interview, 1Leah McIntosh